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Make Innere Führung attractive again! – A Personal Essay

A dusty image

Sometimes I feel like shouting into the wind: “Innere Führung is a great concept!” But the reaction I would normally get is shaking heads and looks of disbelief, at least in my previous assignments in infantry units: “Nobody needs this” is an answer I get. Or something like, “what are you talking about?” Still, our senior leadership loves to promote the concept, but nobody at the tactical levels seems to be interested in the “basis for military service in the Bundeswehr and … the self-image of soldiers” (No. 101) as the very first paragraph of Innere Führung claims. For most soldiers, the concept seems not to be engaging at all. How is this? How come? I have a simple answer: we teach it wrong! We teach it in a way that is boring, elusive, and too abstract. This essay presents my view about the German Armed Forces ethics concept—and how to fix its dusty image. 

In the beginning of this essay, I present my underlying assumption: that Innere Führung is still a very valuable and relevant framework to guide soldiers through peace and war. I present two main thoughts: firstly, we must admit that moral values like human rights, democracy, equality, and the underlying principle of our German Basic Law are not in opposition to the demands of bravery in combat, loyalty, and the willingness to fight. Moreover, these “two sides of an equation” have to be in balance because being committed to only one part is worthless without the other. Secondly, we must transform the practical teaching of Innere Führung by including the full spectrum of the concept—moral values and military virtues—in all ways of ethics education. I present some advice on how to use the text of Innere Führung itself to make it engaging and attractive for soldiers, focusing on young officers, to keep Innere Führung alive and relevant in the modern German armed forces.

Rediscovering the two main themes of the concept

I start with my central assumption: Innere Führung is valuable, relevant, and in itself needs no revisions or updates. The concept provides all the necessary guidelines a modern soldier and military leader needs, from their commitment to democracy and human rights to “traditional” military demands such as loyalty and bravery in battle. Looking at the concept’s history, one of its main goals was to mark the break between the culpable Wehrmacht and the new Bundeswehr, newly established in a strong democratic system. This ethics and leadership concept has been part of the Bundeswehr since its establishment in 1956 and has later received the status of a Joint Service Regulation. As Innere Führung is a sign of “learning from German military history,” it bridges the gap between the need for armed forces and the fear of the military’s destructive power if used by the wrong hands. And Innere Führung makes clear: capable and strong forces are needed to defend democracy–and this is as true today as it was in the 1950s, when the Federal Republic of Germany had just been founded.

With this in mind, my first task is to point out the need for balance between moral values, like human rights, and “classic” military values, like bravery in combat, in talking about Innere Führung. To do so, I need to explain my understanding and interpretation of the whole concept, especially regarding its origins in the 1950s: The most important and famous pioneers for InnereFührung were the Lieutenant Generals Hans Speidel and Adolf Heusinger, Colonel Johann Adolf Graf von Kielmansegg, Lieutenant Colonel Ulrich de Maizière and Major Wolf Graf von Baudissin (ranks stated as at the end of the Second World War in 1945). They all had significant experience in combat leadership positions, and most of them were wounded and decorated veterans. They were fully aware of what was needed to prevail in combat. Furthermore, all of them were known for their opposition to and dislike of the Nazi regime. In addition to their wartime experience, Wolf Graf von Baudissin was already thinking about chaos in future warfare, including nuclear war. Once armies and militaries clash on the technologized future battlefield, one can expect direct leadership to be disrupted or made extremely difficult. The individual soldiers then must make decisions on their own, following their training and, in morally difficult situations, following their conscience. 

Keeping the ideas of the “founding fathers” in mind, I recognize two main themes in Innere Führung: Firstly, the absolute necessity to prevent any atrocities by the hands of German soldiers in the future – an underlying motive that is often summed up in the brief sentence “never again.” This theme is about actively preventing the military from acting as a compliant instrument of a felonious government. Soldiers must be educated in the principles of our democracy and the moral values of the German Basic Law, with particular emphasis on human rights. They must be trained “to render conscientious obedience” (Nr. 401), which means being aware of the limits of orders and following one’s own moral compass. 

The second theme addresses the creation of a robust and assertive military organization based on strong unit cohesion on a tactical level and mutual trust throughout all leadership levels. Each of the Innere Führung “founding fathers” played a significant role in the rearmament of the young Federal Republic of Germany, and most of them later rose to the highest ranks. These officers were certainly not opposed to the military idea and wanted to raise capable forces that could prevail in the Cold War. Of course, regarding their experience with the Nazi regime, they felt the need to put those forces into a coherent moral framework. However, in addition to that, following again their experience, they also placed emphasis on promoting unit cohesion as the backbone of strong (military) forces. This is a logical step. When raising armed forces, you want to build confident forces that can win battles simply because of the responsibility to each soldier under your command, and to the country you serve and the values it stands for. Otherwise, these forces, created to safeguard the young democracy, would be detrimental. 

The interpretation of Innere Führung with these two themes may be a simplification from an academic perspective, but it is a useful starting point for bringing it back to life among today’s soldiers. Let me note here that my argument is not to simplify Innere Führung by reducing it to the practical value on deployments or in combat situations alone, as some authors do. Both described themes are parts of one concept. Either one is worthless without the other, both in peace and war. Saying this, I clearly criticize the ethics education in the German military that seems to focus almost exclusively on the first topic, the prevention of the misuse of armed forces and the Bundeswehr’s foundation on human rights. In my opinion, the balance is off.

In current discussions about Innere Führung the famous image of the “citizen in uniform” is highlighted again and again. However, this image is often (mis-)understood as a soldier who is totally engaged with our democratic values, is part of the political debate, and is motivated per se by our society’s moral code. But wait, do soldiers really “strengthen their willingness … to perform their duties thoroughly” (Nr. 401) solely through the idea of human rights, democracy, and morally appropriate conduct? Please do not get me wrong, fighting for democratic values and human rights is one of the most important, if not the single most important idea of Innere Führung. However, for me this is the “citizen” part; we do not often speak about the “uniform” part. The latter, in my understanding, and to narrow it down to its core, is fighting, killing, and dying for our country and, even more importantly, for the values it stands for. This sounds drastic. To make it more specific, this means for soldiers to be brave, to be loyal to law and comrades, and to be willing to endure hardships and to put one’s life on the line. 

Innere Führung was designed to be relevant to military members both equally as citizens and as soldiers, and when it is taught or embraced in ways that neglect either of these two themes, it becomes worthless. When teaching neglects some dimensions of camaraderie, bravery, and leadership in combat to instead emphasize only sanitized ideals of human rights and good conduct, the full value of the document is obscured. When discussions of human rights never get into the uncomfortable but real territory of being willing to kill for these ideals, again, an opportunity is missed to bring back the relevance of Innere Führung to real professional military life.

In my opinion, this is why, talking to peers, subordinates and superiors about the concept, I often hear expressions like “outdated model,” “irrelevant,” and “unnecessary waste of time,” and questions like “Innere Führung, what exactly are you talking about?” Even in this publication, experts and scholars regularly question whether Innere Führung needs to be updated. For most soldiers, the concept simply does not play any role in everyday military life. They do not fully understand that Innere Führung created the foundation for many essential elements of modern German military culture such as the participation of all ranks in decision-making, the concept of mission command, the requirements and limitations of orders, and the demand for superiors to be role models in all matters. Most military members simply miss this fact. And the reason why many soldiers fail to engage properly with Innere Führung is the way it is taught, de-emphasizing its value for the real daily challenges of military life, in which practical and ethical concerns are constantly intertwined. Now, how can we increase the acceptance of Innere Führung within the armed forces in order to live up to its self-imposed claim to be the “basis for military service in the Bundeswehr and … the self-image of soldiers” (No. 101)?

My short answer: by motivating soldiers of all ranks to simply read the short, concise regulation. 

You can only discover the full range of guidelines, hidden advice, and promoted values by reading it on your own. Being familiar with the full range of aspects through “first-hand” reading forms the basis of a meaningful discussion of the concept. And I am not talking about agreeing with all of them. 

Still, how to persuade the soldiers to actually read it? Again, the answer is simple: we have to make Innere Führung attractive again! And this is one of the main tasks for Innere Führung education. In other words, right now, we explain the concepts in ways that are too vague and too abstract. Our teaching has to make the ethics model attractive and appealing. Innere Führung is not an easy model, and yes, it can be abstract. But we can make the concept more understandable and effective by tying it to soldiers’ expectations and core military tasks. The text hands us all the tools needed to create the motivation to read it and think about it. 

Getting back to the “uniform” part

So the second main part now deals with the question how to regain the balance and whom to address to make Innere Führung engaging and interesting in the long run. In this essay I concentrate primarily on young soldiers and specifically on young officers. In the “middle ground” of a military career, fully embedded in stressful leadership positions and periodic deployment cycles, most soldiers do not spend much time with ethical fundamentals: they have more practical problems at hand. That is why I focus on the young guys and gals, taking 23-year-old infantry officers as an example. They are the ones who shape and train subordinates and peers in daily personal contact and serve as immediate role models regarding values and ethical thinking. My method is simple: I use only the text of Innere Führung itself to provide some interesting, controversial, and often-unspoken aspects as food for thought—and to see if there are parallels to young officers’ expectations.

Taking the perspective of these motivated 23-year-old infantry officers, I assume that Innere Führung, the way they have probably heard about it, is not appealing at all. If we want them to engage with the concept and to view it as personally relevant, the practical dimensions of the text need to be highlighted as much as the ambitious ideals. I am convinced that young officer cadets and aspirants think about their future role and about the military task of serving our society. I am sure that most of them are fueled by the notion of “doing something good” and of “making a difference.” Still, it is not necessarily the holistic idea of democracy that motivates them to sign up for military service. And I suspect that most of them do not deep dive into the sometimes “dark” ethical rabbit holes of our profession. Their expectations are far more tangible, like getting deployed, helping and supporting struggling people, and fighting “bad guys” and terrorists. So, what are the virtues and values for young officers, especially those signing up for combat units, that could motivate them and foster their interest?

My own career and experiences lead me to believe that most young officers expect and are attracted to “classical” military values, or at least what they understand of them. These are often “holistic ideals” of camaraderie, bravery, and discipline. More practically, they expect tough training and want to prove themselves in challenging situations. They expect to be trained and prepared for deployments and combat. And they want to be capable and exemplary military leaders even in combat situations, want to learn how to form strong bonds with comrades, and build enduring unit cohesion on their own. All of these values and virtues are clearly called for in Innere Führung, some stated openly, some buried at the end of a paragraph—yet they can be found if looking closely.

Looking at the “holistic ideals,” the most obvious and unambiguous statement about the characteristics of the individual Bundeswehr soldier is the “military code of values,” stated in No. 507 of Innere Führung. Besides being committed to the norms of the Basic Law, soldiers need to be “brave, loyal and conscientious, comradely and considerate, disciplined, competent and willing to learn, truthful to themselves and to others, fair, tolerant and open to other cultures, and able to distinguish right from wrong conduct.” Camaraderie, bravery, loyalty, discipline, and competence are openly demanded in the ethics concept. Teaching the whole range of the “military code of values” makes young officers aware of their whole range of responsibilities.

Further on, Innere Führung demands preparedness for crises. No. 402 describes the “ideal Bundeswehr soldier”—defined as the “citizen in uniform”—has to be “ready at all times to carry out his mission.” No. 505 makes clear that military missions include combat, and that those missions “may require [soldiers] to kill in battle and to risk their own lives as well as the lives of their comrades.” In the introductory chapter of Innere Führung, this cruel part of military reality—fighting itself—becomes evident in the requirements for “citizens in uniform,” too: “It is their duty to loyally serve the Federal Republic of Germany and to bravely defend the rights and freedom of the German people. Military service involves risking life and limb and, in the final analysis, the obligation to kill in battle” (No. 105). “Citizen” unambiguously refers to the Basic Law and human rights. However, highlighting the willingness to fight is the explanation to the “uniform” part. Combat is certainly not what makes military service attractive, nor should it be, but it aligns with what young soldiers expect in military service. 

Furthermore, officer candidates and young officers demand guidelines on how to be good military leaders—and those guidelines should be clear and straightforward. Innere Führung provides a handy appendix about leadership that sums up hints and requirements in short phrases. The concept’s text highlights core elements: I consider No. 606 as one of the essential paragraphs in the whole regulation: “Superiors promote trust in themselves by enduring stress, deprivation and danger together with their soldiers. Particularly in difficult and challenging situations, they must demonstrate responsibility and leadership skills. Superiors must be predictable and maintain self-control. In day-to-day activities, Innere Führung is reflected above all in the respect that is shown to others.” No. 622 states that “superiors who are honest with themselves will increase their authority as leaders.” Sharing hardships, acting respectfully, being truthful and predictable—simple guidelines that summarize some of the most important qualities of a leader while being very difficult to follow. Those are standards every officer in the German Armed Forces should pursue. And again, they are clearly stated in Innere Führung.

Besides personal qualities, military leaders have a core task: to form strong and capable units by promoting unit cohesion. No. 617 of Innere Führung says that “superiors strengthen unit cohesion when the unit works together to overcome stressful situations. This promotes comradeship, trust in unit performance, and esprit de corps.” Officers and enlisted have to “take an active role in life in the military community and strive to maintain a spirit of comradeship” (No. 508). In addition, unit cohesion is one of the core objectives to create motivation in Innere Führung. One of the concept’s goals is “to strengthen the willingness of soldiers to perform their duties thoroughly … to cooperate, and to maintain troop cohesion and discipline” (401). Unit cohesion is a repetitive element in Innere Führung. I am convinced that cohesion is no goal in itself; it is about having confident and assertive forces.

What if, for instance, we lined up all the quotations mentioned above and let young officers guess where they come from? This could be one first step to motivate to engage with the concept, to deal with it, read it, discuss it, and to deep-dive into the full range of the “citizen in uniform.” Even if they do not align with all its elements, they will notice that this Joint Service Regulation knows about their profession and has something to tell them. Highlighting these passages proves to young officers that Innere Führung is anything but boring. 

Why then do we never openly discuss those in some ways “classic,” and in some ways “dark” military elements of Innere Führung in our regular ethics and leadership trainings? Does the idea of strong military units, fostered by strong bonds and trust between soldiers and superiors, oppose the “citizen in uniform”? Surely not. Both are balanced parts—or should be. Yet, I feel that in ethics education and training, we are still constrained by our history. Innere Führung itself tries to smooth the waters here by stating that the new, democratic “relationship between state, society and the armed forces (…) is fundamentally distinct from the historical situation of the Reichswehr and the Wehrmacht” (No. 204). Yet, the German society and even the armed forces still have a fraught relationship to the core mission of a military organization – fighting and prevailing in battle. Shooting and combat are part of military reality. It is the basis of our training, even if we wish it not to be. However, we are reluctant to speak about that aspect in ethical matters directly, and the regular seminars on “Death and Wounding” do not meet the need to talk about “active fighting” as the core task of our profession. The “citizen in uniform” bridges the gap between the military as a pure instrument of political power and the fundamental values of our democracy, codified in the Basic Law. The “citizen in uniform” does not neglect the core task of fighting and, in the worst case, killing—it puts it in context.

Yet, this essay is not primarily concerned with explaining the concept of the “citizen in uniform.” My goal is to make Innere Führung engaging—and the way it is taught. We should not be afraid to start with the “uniform” part. In addition to that, most of the leadership wisdom that Innere Führung provides is pointing to unit cohesion—and this has for sure a practical value, thinking about our latest German military history: when asking German Afghanistan combat veterans why they fought, the answer is regularly, “for the man next to me.” Incorporating this practical dimension will demonstrate that Innere Führung acknowledges a modern soldier’s reality. 

Some readers will oppose my claims and accuse me of “cherrypicking” passages from the text. But it would be equally unfair to ignore those passages which show a different perspective, motivate to read the paragraphs, or even the whole chapter. If we include those parts in our regular Bundeswehr ethics education and only a few young soldiers read the regulation in full afterwards, we will have taken a big step forward. When more and more officers read and think about Innere Führung, we form a basis for further thoughtful discussion. The concept even demands those debates: “The core of Innere Führung is unchangeable. It is, however, also subject to a continual process of further development … This process is fostered by an active dialogue amongst soldiers and with people and institutions outside the Bundeswehr” (No. 108). Innere Führung itself acknowledges that “within the Bundeswehr … there are conflicts of opinion and tensions between different generations, cultures and backgrounds” (No. 313). I welcome those debates and happily discuss my suggestions.

To end my discussion, I need to add a final criticism of the concept itself. It claims that “the principles of Innere Führung form a basis for military service in the Bundeswehr and influence the self-image of soldiers” (No. 101). Some scholars and officers like to repeat this notion: “Innere Führung is important, it is the backbone of our military culture.” Just because the regulation states it is important does not mean it is. We are responsible for proving its importance in practice—officers, military leaders, political leaders, officer cadets, basic training instructors, military chaplains, generals, and scholars alike. By weaving together both the soldier and the citizen dimensions, however, we can make Innere Führung attractive again.

German Ministry of Defense (ed.) (2008): Joint Service Regulation 10/1. Innere Führung. (Official English translation only available for the regulation’s 2008 version, provided by the Zentrum Innere Führung/The Leadership Development and Civic Education Center.)

Lieutenant Colonel Matthias Schwarzbauer is a German mountain ­infantry officer with ­combat experience in ­Afghanistan. He holds a master’s degree in ­economics and organizational sciences from the Universität der Bundeswehr München and is currently pursuing an M.S. degree in Defense Analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

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All articles in this issue

Tribal cultures and Innere Führung – a contradiction?
Sönke Neitzel
"Citizens in uniform" or "German warriors" – Innere Führung put to the test?
Reinhold Janke
Innere Führung as an attempt to answer the question of (military) force: Theological and ethical remarks on the current debate
Markus Patenge
Military virtues for today
Peter Olsthoorn
"God, how I hate the 20th century" – On chivalry as a myth and as an ethical virtue
Bernhard Koch
Manhood rites – Violent rituals, sexual assault and right-wing extremism in the German armed forces
Rolf Pohl


Eva Högl
Matthias Schwarzbauer
Steve Thull, Erny Gillen Heinrich Dickerhoff